Atlético have found a new counterattacking edge, and with it scored victories over both Juventus and Villarreal.
Atlético Madrid were in arguably their worst form of the season up until last week. Coming off two straight losses that looked bad both on the pitch and in the numbers, Atletico have surged for three victories.
The theme of the wins has been a change to more attacking tactics for manager Diego Simeone. After the Argentine received criticism for his starting XI against Real Madrid, he made several attacking-minded changes against Juventus and Villarreal — one of which has involved Saúl Ñíguez moving out to a wide position.
Where the strategy and match against Real Madrid was gritty, conservative and even dirty at times, Atlético has recently been much more dynamic and free-flowing. Known for starting a consistent 11, Simeone’s recent lineups have been anything but. Whether the reasons be returns from injuries, fitness, fixture congestion or tactical decisions, the coach has started 16 different players over the past three matches.
But no matter the players, the standard 4-4-2 has much more fluidity and at times resembles a 4-3-3. This is especially true considering the number of central midfielders in the starting lineup.
Again, the biggest change in system has been Saúl’s placement on the right wing. Saúl’s two recent appearances at this position were only his second and third of the season. The 24-year-old has played several different positions this season — most infamously at left back — but features most often as a central midfielder.
(In fact, all four players that started against Juventus on Feb. 20 were primarily central midfielders.)
And Saúl’s seamless move to the wing payed off in grand fashion against Villarreal as the Spaniard scored in the 88th minute.
Atlético’s recent uptick in form — and heat maps showing the team mostly attacking from the right side the past two games — is encouraging, but it’s also important to note that two of these three matches came against bottom table teams (Rayo Vallecano in addition to Villarreal). Atleti’s schedule moves back to the mid-table this weekend as the mattres makers travel to Real Sociedad. Barcelona (April 7) as well as at least one more Champions League game also lay on the horizon.
Despite the tough fixtures and fixture congestion that lies ahead, Simeone does have a few things on his side. For one, this new system is not player-dependent. Simeone has proven over the last three matches that he can rotate at least 16 players through the system and still get results. Secondly, the team is pretty much fully fit. Diego Costa and Koke are returning from injury, leaving Lucas Hernandez as the only injured player. (Costa, though, could miss out at la Real with muscular niggles.)
The wins will certainly not come easily, but Simeone’s tweaks have proven fruitful so far and given Atleti a much-needed boost. The rojiblancos probably won’t win every game left on the schedule, but they will be in all of them. This team now has as good a shot at any to make a deep run in the Champions League.